This is not “good-bye.”
Jesus’ ascension is a moment of culmination and fulfillment and promise. But it is not good-bye.
At first blush, it sure looks as if Jesus is leaving… in our lesson from Acts, we hear about Jesus being taken up into heaven, and todays Gospel from John shows us Jesus talking about going back to the father…it sure sounds like “good-bye!”
When we hear the Ascension, especially as described in Acts, we can’t help but think of movies with a dramatic departure scene. Remember E.T. The Extra-terrestrial when he tells Eliot to “be good” before the tearful (and light filled) farewell? I like Casablanca when Rick and Lt. Renault walk off into the fog of what could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Jesus’ ascension is not “good-bye.” Jesus’ ascension is in a very real sense only the beginning.
Have you ever noticed how many Christians find ways of focusing on Jesus’ absence? A few weeks ago we were all caught up with the misguided antics of Pastor Harold Camping and his absolute certainty that the rapture would come on May 22nd. The whole silly ruckus reminded me of the disciples in Acts who look up at Jesus and say “now?”
Instead, the followers of Jesus are called back to earth and given a job: starting close to home in Jerusalem and then gradually spiraling out into the rest of the known world, they are to tell the Good News. Matthew’s Gospel says that they are to baptize and teach. This is not good-bye. It is a commissioning.
John’s Gospel, like the other three, is written to a resurrection community; a community to whom Jesus has given the reigns. John's is the last and the latest of the Gospels, written to a group of Christians who are more than a generation past the ministry of Jesus and even the apostles. The original witnesses are passing away and the church is now in it for the long haul.
So in the Gospel today, we hear Jesus praying a farewell prayer. John is teaching us about what Jesus is up to and what our job is. And he frames his description in terms of how estates were owned and run in the first and second century. God, in this prayer, is a patron—the owner of everything—like the owner of a farm or estate, to whom everything produced and sold belongs. Jesus is like the steward. He is the one to whom the job of doling out the master’s resources and seeing to it that everyone is on the job. As the steward of the estate, he is also the one who takes care of the people doing the work. We, the disciples for whom Jesus prays, are the ones who live on the estate and do the work. We receive the resources to do the job and benefits of being under the master’s protection.
To understand grace in the New Testament, one must understand that this was how life was structured in the first century. Someone owns. Someone oversees on behalf of the master and takes care of the ordinary folk. And the ordinary folk pay tribute the master and do his work. That’s how it was in the first century and for much of human history.
Today, we work differently. Today, we do not see ourselves as beholden to anyone, but to understand what Jesus is praying in John’s Gospel, we must recognize that this is how it worked in the first and second centuries. It was a world in terms of interdependent relationships where everyone had a role and a job.
Knowing that, we can now see the radical thing about Jesus’ prayer. In his prayer Jesus changes the relationships. He is going back to the father, and he will care for us. But now we disciples are now the stewards of creation. We are the people who represent the master. We are the ones in whose hands God places the estate.
The ascension is not “good-bye,” it is an Easter appearance and most of all a commissioning of God’s people to do God’s work in God’s world. The ascension is a beginning because now it is possible for Christ who reigns to fill and transform all creation.
Here is how we do that:
We are a praying people. We are a people that Christ prays for. Imagine if we understood ourselves as a people that Jesus prays for. That means we know that we are not alone and that we are able—not self-sufficient, but competent to do God’s work. We are a people who pray because we are being prayed for. Our pattern of worship and prayer shows us again and again that we are a people being prayed for and cared for. We become mindful of our relationship with God in Christ.
We are a witnessing people. What we do points to Christ. Ever notice how many Christians point to an angry, vengeful, judging God? These folks take all their fear, anger and disappointment, dress them up in divine clothing, and then in God’s name tell us what we are doing wrong. Being a witness for Christ is entirely different: being a witness when we show off how God empowers us for justice, changes people at their core, and builds up our gifts.
Witnessing is also something the community of the faithful does. Each of us alone witnesses to the resurrection and ascended Jesus who fills all things. And all of us together are witnesses, too. People see Christ in each of us and in all of us. No one of us expresses the fullness of Christ, no one of us shows off the power and transformation of Christ. We all do. Each of us whose lives God touches show off Christ together.
We are a compassionate people. Being the stewards and being the workers of God’s reign means that we see the world more and more as God sees. We acknowledge and are present to the real pain in this world. And we confront the things that divide us knowing that we are already one with Christ as Christ is one with God. And we look out for those that no one else cares about. We find that when we listen for God in the voices of the weak and the poor we find ourselves walking with Jesus. We find that the God who has lifted our burdens is also lifting the burdens of those around us.
In these ways we are present to the world and the people God has given us.
It is not “good-bye.” It is a beginning. Everything is completed. All preparations are done. The incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection means that God and creation are reunited. Christ reigns victorious. Now Jesus has invited us—called us—to share in the job of stewarding creation. We are the living signs of Christ’s presence in this broken world. We are the visible sign of God in Christ filling all things and making them whole. We participate in Christ’s healing of the cosmos one relationship at a time. Not “good-bye,” a beginning.
The Seventh Sunday of Easter: Acts 1:6-14; John 17:1-11
Image: h/t Liturgy. Info here.